Friday, November 13, 2015

USA: In Binghamton, NY, Rediscovery of an Early "Holocaust" Memorial

Conklin (Binghamton), New York. Temple Israel Cemetery. Holocaust Memorial (1952). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Conklin (Binghamton), New York. Temple Israel Cemetery. Holocaust Memorial (1952). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Conklin (Binghamton), New York. Beth David Cemetery. Gravestone of Max Melamed, who died in World War II. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Conklin (Binghamton), New York. Temple Israel Cemetery. American Flags decorate the graves of Veterans. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

USA: In Binghamton, NY, Rediscovery of an Early "Holocaust" Memorial
by Samuel D. Gruber

On a recent visit to Binghamton, New York, Colgate University professor Rhonda Levine took time to show me an unexpected monument in the cemetery of Temple Israel, the city's conservative synagogue. The monument, erected in 1952 commemorates "Victims of Racial Persecution who lost Their Lives in Europe During the Years 1933-1945." The inscription goes on to assert "They Will Never Be Forgotten" This monument, a surrogate matzevah for those who have no burial place, takes its place among other graves of war dead in the Temple Israel and adjacent Beth David cemetery. 

This is one of the earliest memorials to Holocaust victims erected in the United States. In 1950 a memorial was placed in the B'nai Israel Synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey, where the rabbi was a refugee from Mainheim, Germany. Two stones from Mannheim's Haupt Synagogue, destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938, were recovered and placed in a  wall niche of the sanctuary. Meanwhile, An ambitious memorial planned for Riverside Park in New York City was never built, despite competitions, plans, models, rallies and fund raising. As Rochelle Saidel has documented in her book Never too Late to Remember: the Politics behind New York City's Holocaust Museum (Holmes & Meier, 1996) it took decades until the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust opened in New York as a direct successor to that original commemorative effort.

The much smaller Binghamton project began in 1948 when, according to Prof. Levine: 
"a group of thirteen German speaking Jewish women who had resettled in the Southern Tier after fleeing Nazi terror in Europe formed the Get Together Club, a philanthropic and social club. The most ambitious project of the Get Together Club was the placement of a memorial stone in the Temple Israel section of the Conklin Avenue cemetery in November 1952, in memory of those who died during the Holocaust.   

The husband of a member of the Get Together Club bemoaned the fact that his parents, who had died in one of the concentration camps, had no graves.He told his wife, “I feel so bad. There’s no place for me to say a prayer.” His wife told him she had read in The Aufbau that people were making memorial stones in New York for those who died in the death camps. She then decided to bring the idea of erecting a memorial stone to the Get Together Club as a project. Many of the members had relatives who died during the Holocaust and had no proper burial or even marking of a grave. Club members began contacting all the Jewish families of primarily German descent in the area who lost family members in Nazi Germany, and took up a collection to pay for the memorial. 

The monument was dedicated on Sunday, November 9, 1952. Over 250 names were inscribed on scrolls and placed in a copper box buried at the foot of the monument. The Get Together Club asked all the local rabbis to recite prayers at the unveiling of the monument. Each year thereafter, on the Sunday in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Get Together Club sponsored a memorial service at the monument, with area rabbis taking turns at leading the service, and then one of the survivors read the names written on the scrolls. These services continued for over 20 years, well into the late 1970s.
Prof. Levine, explained, however, that "as members of these families died or moved away the purpose - and even the existence - of the monument was largely forgotten." Kaddish was no longer recited at the monument on annual pilgrimages to the cemetery, and the names of those buried beneath the stone and even of those who donated for its erection were lost to memory.

Conklin (Binghamton), New York. Temple Israel Cemetery. Holocaust Memorial (1952). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Rhonda has made it a mission to rediscovery this part of Binghamton's Jewish history, and to remember the refugees who settled here from Germany and Austria and their loved ones who could not escape and did not survive.  

How many more such monuments exist in cemeteries throughout America?  If you know of one, and the story behind, let us know. The International Survey of Jewish Monuments will try to compile a list of early Holocaust memorials in the United States, just as similar lists have been created for Europe in the countries where Jews and other victims died.  Many of the first memorials created after liberation were later destroyed under Communism. There are some efforts to document these, and to restore them when they can be found, or replace them when it can be shown that they were removed. 

1 comment:

Julian H. Preisler said...

A few years ago I began compiling a list of known Holocaust memorials, monuments and museums throughout North America. So far I have 300+ locations. I'll be posting the list on my webpage shortly and would be happy to share the information with you.